By Alex Berger
Two grandmothers, wheeling their grandchildren, met in the park. One admired the baby in a pink-frilled carriage. Naturally, the other grandmother had to repay the compliment and admired the two in the other carriage. She asked how old those beautiful babies are. The proud grandmother said, “The doctor is eight months old, the judge is a year and a half.”
I periodically sneak in a column about my childhood days on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We were a family of 10 (two parents and eight children) sharing a cramped, two-bedroom apartment with a boarder and a cat. We lived in absolute, abject poverty, but I never knew it — I was having too much fun.
Every day, there were many friends to play and “schmooze” (converse) with. I merely had to step outside my building and there they were. In addition, I had stickball games to play, a settlement house to go to, a candy store stocked with the most scrumptious goodies a kid could ask for, including delicious egg creams (a fountain carbonated chocolate soda) and “Black Bottoms” (chocolate candies with jelly filled bottoms).
On rainy days when the residue of fallen water formed a flowing stream along the curb on its voyage to the corner sewer, I had the opportunity to race an improvised “boat” against those of other kids. Our “boats” were chosen very creatively — soda-pop caps, ice-cream sticks or any other piece of discard we found that would float.
We would place our entries in the water and run alongside them as they swiftly sailed down stream before dropping into the sewer. The first “boat” to reach the sewer was the winner. Alvin, who lost an eye at the age of 3, had a glass one; he’d challenge the field by placing the eye in the water, and he became very adept at retrieving it before it sailed down the sewer. His glass eye won every time.
Above all I loved going to the “dumps” (the bottom-rung movie theaters) where, for 9 cents, I saw three pictures including a Western, four cartoons, a “Movietone” newsreel, one chapter in a 15-chapter series (each ending with the hero or heroine in dire straits but saved the following week) and prize offerings.
I can even remember the names of the dumps within a 10-block radius of my home. There was the Lucky Star, the Sunshine, the American, the Ruby, the Palestine, the New Delancey, the St. Mark’s and the Orpheum. Added to the list were the fancier Loews chain of movie houses — Commodore, Delancey, Avenue B and Apollo.
Every Saturday, my harried mother would pack a cut-up, whole boiled chicken into a shopping bag and send her four youngest children, Miriam, Shirley, Milton and me, to the movies. We would sit entranced as we viewed the show several times, and we wouldn’t leave until Mama came to claim us many hours later.
I particularly loved the chapters. There were Flash Gordon, Superman and Captain Marvel, to name a few. My favorite was cowboy Buck Jones. With white hat and horse (does anyone remember the horse’s name?), he would save his damsel in distress and himself continually through 15 chapters.
There was one chapter I will never forget. Buck Jones had an evil desperado holed up in a darkened wooden shack. He tentatively entered and fell through a trap set by the sinister villain.
At the bottom of the shaft was a deep body of water in which swam an alligator. I never did find out how he managed to escape that situation since I didn’t go to the movies the following week. But I knew Buck was safe and sound because two weeks later, he was back saving himself and the damsel again.
In real life, Buck Jones, true to form, died a hero’s death. In the 1940s, a fire broke out while he was dining at the Boston Coconut Grove. He reached safety but raced back to save others and perished in the flames.
My friend since childhood, Stan Drescher, also had a movie story to relate. He came from a family of six (two older girls and four younger boys) which, if you can believe, was probably poorer than mine. I remember his father very well — a tall, quiet, pious man who always carried a book under his arm. His mother was an affable woman and she was good friends with my mother.
The Drescher boys loved the movies, also. On one Saturday morning when their father was in synagogue and their mother was out with little David (5), brother Jack (13) spied a dollar atop the icebox. Jack, Morty (12) and Stan (10) ignored that the money was payment for the iceman.
“Someone” (Stan refuses to identify the guilty one) took the dollar and said, “Let’s go to the movies.” No coaxing was necessary and they left to catch the theater’s 10 a.m. opening. They had enough money to buy all the refreshments they wanted.
Stuffed and exhilarated, they arrived home. Mama and Papa were waiting for them. David was glad they got caught because they didn’t bring him. Mama knew what was coming so she took David into the kitchen.
Papa sat them down. He was very upset and explained that they had stolen money from an honest man and had to be punished for it. “You are all going to prison — no questions, no answers, no discussion,” Papa said.
He grabbed their hands and headed for the door. Their lives were over! At the last moment, Mama came in and asked if there was another way to punish them. “Prison life is harsh,” she said. Papa lit a cigarette, sat back, pondered a while, and made his decision. “You will go to prison but only after a trial,” Papa ruled.
Each of them had the opportunity to defend himself. Papa was the prosecutor and he presented an airtight case against them. Then he announced that a judge would have to be appointed to render a decision, and Papa promptly appointed David.
Lifting David up, Papa placed the boy on top of the icebox. It didn’t take David long to render a decision. Without any fanfare, he stated, “They’re guilty. Kill them!”
The story had a happy ending. Jack became a New York Police Department sergeant, Morty worked for the Navy and became the father of Fran Drescher, Stan owned his own insurance company, and little David is now a successful certified public accountant. Stan’s mother and father were certainly wise parents.
Today, these stories could never happen. There are no more icemen, no more three pictures, no more chapters and no more 9-cent children’s admission to an all-day film fest.
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 140.